Writing as Thinking on Paper

writing to learn

People who write well only tend to reveal the finished product, leaving the rest of us to think that if we ourselves struggle to produce a gleaming, insightful paper out of thin air, then one of the following must be true:

A. Those writers are cheating;
B. There is something they know that we do not know; or,
C. We just are not meant to write and should give up now.

While none of these answers are true, perhaps B comes the closest. Successful writers are those who have learned to engage in writing as an opportunity to help themselves understand their topics better. They might not always like the process of writing, much less find it easy, but they do appreciate writing as a self-teaching tool primarily and as a communication method only after they have written to understand for themselves.

Most people think of writing as a way to communicate with others. This is true, but thinking of writing only in this way can be a barrier to the writing process. Think about it - when you turn in a paper, you want your writing to be as thorough, well-developed, and clear as possible. But the paper you turn in is the final draft of your writing, the outcome of weeks or months of hard work.

When we think of writing only in terms of communication with the reader, it is like trying to write the final draft from the moment you put pen to paper (or finger to key). In reality a process lies between those sketches, incoherent words, and coffee-stained notebook and the crisp, freshly printed document you proudly (or at least with great relief) submit to your professor.

Keep this in mind as you view the phases of the writing process that we have outlined throughout this site. Learning to view writing as "thinking on paper", to use a phrase coined by philosopher V.A. Howard, will not make it suddenly easy, but doing so will help you get through the frustrating times when nothing you write makes sense, because you now know that even your random scribbles matter.


writing as "thinking on paper"

One way to approach writing is to view it as "thinking on paper". You might be someone for whom "thinking out loud" proves beneficial. Consider why that is: when you think out loud, you enunciate the words and force your thoughts through a process that sets them free from the scary mess inside your head. The early phases of writing are just like thinking out loud - except your inarticulate ramblings end up on paper so that you can refer back to them later. Howard terms this step of the writing process the "articulation" phase, in which you write for yourself in order to create, clarify, and organize your ideas.

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writing as knowledge-making

If one of the greatest benefits of writing is to articulate your new ideas to yourself, it only follows to view writing as a knowledge-making activity. Howard notes that in the conventional way of thinking about writing, the "preoccupation with communication reinforces the tendency to dwell on either the final results or the psychological origins of writing, to the exclusion of the activity of writing" (emphasis added). This serves, he contends, to "cloak" that activity "in a false mystery," often leading to the mental dysfunction known as writer's block. Rather, he argues, we should emphasize that "the primary goal of writing, like reading, is to understand and then make that understanding available to others in writing...the first use of writing is to think with-to articulate ideas" [or to make one's meaning] through language as a learning tool and only later to "communicate them" (Howard 1990, 84).

Focusing only upon communication as the purpose of writing "tends to drive a false wedge between thinking and writing" and actually can inhibit your ability to generate ideas; it literally can leave you with nothing to write about and instead produce "an especially paralyzing...notion that the Muse resides somewhere within the 'unconscious' and that one must wait for it to act rather than oneself prodding, probing, and producing" (Howard 1900, 88). Howard advocates encouraging us to think of creativity not in this passive sense, in which lack of inspiration "easily becomes an excuse for not writing," but instead in terms of regarding inspiration as "the reward for making an effort" (1990, 89): as he puts it, "the question of creativity in writing...is a question of how well we think, perform, and produce" (1990, 90).



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